Tell me what to believe!
October 3, 2012 6:31 AM   Subscribe

What’s the best, scientifically-supported mindset for success, resilience, confidence, and rebounding from stress and failure?

Specific details:

I’m a freshman at a top college, taking a couple of hard classes. These classes are in the STEM field, and I’m female. I love the topics, but I’ve become interested in these topics relatively recently (2 years ago), so I haven’t had as much experience in high school as many other students have. I try to stay positive and concentrate on my love of the topics and my future goals, but sometimes I have to deal with negativity and self-defeat.

For example, if I do badly on a test, I instinctively think, “Why am I so bad at X? Why am I so stupid?” though I consciously know that the correct gut reaction should be “This is a one-time problem; I’ve had much less practice and background than others in this class; I’ve learned a lot; I’ll work harder and do better in the long run, especially if I stay move on and positive.”

It’s hard for me to see past the fact that sometimes I’m in the bottom half of the class, and realize that sometimes I’m in the top half of the class, and that I’ve been doing extraordinarily well given how recently I’ve started learning. It’s also hard for me not to get jealous and judgmental when I see people who seem naturally good at something. I keep forgetting that it takes a lot of time, hard work, and practice.

Scientific examples:

- Dweck’s research on praise and intelligence. It’s better to believe in hard work and love of solving problems, instead of believing that your performance is intrinsically determined by intelligence or genius.
- Can’t remember a source for this, but apparently when a (STEM?) test is given that both men and women do badly on, the men tend to blame their performance on temporary external factors (a badly-taught class or accidentally studying incorrectly; an anomaly). Women, on the other hand, blame their performance on themselves (they’re not smart or shouldn’t be taking this class).
- SuperBetter, an app / website which says its tactics are backed up by research. I can’t find their “science cards” on the site, but the app gives advice along the following lines:
  • maintain a 3:1 ratio of positive to negative thought, which will result in an upward spiral. Anything below will result in a downward spiral.
  • be “realistically optimistic” and “strengthen connections with friends.”
  • develop a “positive explanatory style.” When something happens, you should believe that it’s temporary, isolated to particular circumstances, and surmountable. (Implied: despite what it actually is.)
  • tell a heroic story about yourself, which will “turn a challenging experience into a transformative one.”

tl;dr I need to reprogram my conscious and subconscious mind for success and resilience. I’m looking for specific tactics, beliefs, and strategies to implement.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (16 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
Knowing that it's okay to ask for help when you run into a brick wall of understanding; and having somebody to ask will get you a lot further than most strategies when it comes to STEM fields.
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 6:41 AM on October 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Try ACT. The "I'm having the thought that I'm stupid" thought is a way of helping the thoughts to roll by and be seen for what they are: just thoughts.

There isn't really any possible way of feeling good all the time, you might want to look at "The Happiness Trap" for further explanation of this.
posted by tel3path at 6:57 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

2nding asking for help! and also my answer to this question, may also be applicable.

In short, don't worry. Everyone thinks this about themselves when they are a frosh. Everyone.
posted by chiefthe at 7:03 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Implications of Treating Oneself Kindly. Psychologist Mark R. Leary argues that self-compassion is more important than self-esteem in developing confidence and resilience to anxiety, stress and failure.

Among students who received an unsatisfactory midterm grade, self-compassion correlated positively with the emotion focused coping strategies of acceptance and positive reinterpretation/growth and negatively with a focus on negative emotions and avoidance-oriented coping. Furthermore, self-compassion was positively associated with mastery orientation (being motivated by curiosity and the desire to develop one’s skills) but negatively associated with performance orientation (the motivation to defend or enhance one’s self-worth). These studies showed that self-compassion moderates reactions to real and potential failure, possibly by reducing the aversiveness of events that threaten self-esteem.
posted by space_cookie at 7:09 AM on October 3, 2012 [12 favorites]

Coping with Life's Challenges is a really helpful book that lays out a lot of the scientific basis for exactly what you mention, plus has very concrete, easy exercises to help shift one's thinking toward that.
posted by jaguar at 7:25 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

For more insights into Carol Dweck's work, I'd highly recommend her collection of essays, Self-theories: Their Role in Motivation, Personality, and Development. These are written for a professional audience; it's not a popular press self-help book. She lays out her studies, the results, and her conclusions. I found it very valuable. It's certainly altered the way I think about effort, failure, and success.
posted by alms at 7:29 AM on October 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

(By contrast, I would not recommend Dweck's popular press self-help book.)
posted by alms at 7:30 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Previously: What Makes Us Happy?
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:18 AM on October 3, 2012

My main strategy is to see difficult or vexing problems as a type of hard puzzle - a difficult challenge that is intrinsically meant to be overcome.

In this view, failing doesn't mean anything about you, it just means the puzzle is unusually hard and you can crack its secrets by keeping at it.
posted by zug at 8:36 AM on October 3, 2012

Feeling Good uses cognitive-behavioral therapy techniques to teach you how to address and change thoughts like "Why am I so bad at X? Why am I so stupid?"

The author ran some empirical studies on the effectiveness of the book in treating depression as compared to a control, which was Man's Search for Meaning. I do not think you have to be depressed to benefit from it.
posted by callmejay at 8:49 AM on October 3, 2012

The short answer is that optimists are more resilient and successful.

My understanding is that optimism can be learned. You can learn to reframe problems, etc. I seem to have just been born an optimist though my internal dialogue really doesn't fit most of the things I read about what you "should" do in that regard. My internal dialogue fits better with descriptions like "whiny bitch" and "drama queen", so I am always a bit perplexed by theories on positive self-talk.

In short, I am unconvinced that is really necessary. What is necessary is that after all the pissing and moaning and gnashing of teeth, I get up and try again, and in the process I try to improve on the previous attempt. I try to use failure as a means to make better informed future attempts.

Perhaps that can best be summed up as "Failure is just information and information has value". Do I get upset? Sure. Do I act like my feelings du jour are the single most important decision-making factor? Absolutely not.

I will also add that I have come to believe that when a "minority" breaks into a field dominated by folks unlike them, there is more friction in part due to poor fit in terms of presentation of information. Generally speaking, men and women relate differently to information. So if it were me, I would be inclined to cut myself some slack on the grounds that a male dominated field will tend to be presented in "manspeak" and most folks will act like there is something fundamentally wrong with a female-friendly filter for the info. I don't think there is.

For example: My sons have convinced me to venture more into traditionally "male" games by emphasizing ways in which they are like games I already like (a lot of games are "like Simcity": never mind all the blood and violence and war, just focus on the civilization-building pieces, mom). I play a little different from them and relate differently to the games, but once certain games were presented in a more mom-friendly fashion, I was willing and able to get on board. Then they just kept reframing it any time I ran into something too offensive to my "girlie" sensibilities.

So I think if you can find resources or practices or approaches that are a better fit for you, that might improve your performance and reduce some of the problems you are having and generally make it a more comfortable experience. Just keep in mind that it's not really you, it is at least partly their failure to effectively reach you. Then go find what actually works for you, prejudice (about how to relate to the info) be damned.
posted by Michele in California at 9:03 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Building on the answer above, Martin Seligman's learned optimism approach appears to be based on his considerable research background.

Anecdotally, I've found his books helpful and effective both for myself and for understanding how to help my son become more resilient and confident.
posted by dowcrag at 9:32 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Part of the problem is that you're fundamentally misunderstanding what college is for. Don't feel bad about this, though; most people misunderstand the point of college. You're in college to learn, not to prove what you know. If you get an A on every single test you take, you should be furious, because that means that your college took a bunch of your money without teaching you anything.

Let's say you do badly on a math test. Do you know more math than when you started the class? Did you do better on that test than you would have done six months ago? Then congratulations! You're learning.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:50 AM on October 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

This study in the journal Science, which came out a couple years ago, shows that writing an essay about values prior to the semester closed the gender performance gap in university physics. It's actually a pretty astonishing and (statistically) large result that calls into question some of our ideas about competence, performance, positive psychology, and culture.

Maybe write essays like that yourself. And check the references on the paper, and papers that have cited it since, to look for related work.
posted by kellybird at 10:26 AM on October 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I actively follow Eric Barkers blog, which regularly posts the latest in these sorts of studies. I like that he posts a lot of studies that back up human intuition, because I understand that a lot of science blogging suffers from only posting the outliers. For someone with your STEM background, you'd probably only use it to find source data. But it's a good start.

For example, here's a post explaining that the optimal (non-curved) grade is roughly 50-80%. The work is actively challenging you enough that you are improving.
posted by politikitty at 10:30 AM on October 3, 2012

nthing Feeling Good. I am in a STEM field, I had exactly your issues, and this book addresses them in a practical way.

I think I read this book when I was 40, and I wish I had had it when I was in college. It changed my life.
posted by islandeady at 7:04 AM on October 5, 2012

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